|Late Bronze Age|
Linear B is a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, the earliest attested form of Greek. The script predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries. The oldest Mycenaean writing dates to about 1450 BC. It is descended from the older Linear A, an undeciphered earlier script used for writing the Minoan language, as is the later Cypriot syllabary, which also recorded Greek. Linear B, found mainly in the palace archives at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae, disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean civilization during the Late Bronze Age collapse. The succeeding period, known as the Greek Dark Ages, provides no evidence of the use of writing. It is also the only one of the Bronze Age Aegean scripts to have been deciphered, by English architect and self-taught linguist Michael Ventris.
Linear B consists of around 87 syllabic signs and over 100 ideographic signs. These ideograms or "signifying" signs symbolize objects or commodities. They have no phonetic value and are never used as word signs in writing a sentence.
The application of Linear B appears to have been confined to administrative contexts. In all the thousands of clay tablets, a relatively small number of different "hands" have been detected: 45 in Pylos (west coast of the Peloponnese, in southern Greece) and 66 in Knossos (Crete). It is possible that the script was used only by a guild of professional scribes who served the central palaces. Once the palaces were destroyed, the script disappeared.
Linear B has roughly 200 signs, divided into syllabic signs with phonetic values and ideograms with semantic values. The representations and naming of these signs have been standardized by a series of international colloquia starting with the first in Paris in 1956. After the third meeting in 1961 at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin, a standard proposed primarily by Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., became known as the Wingspread Convention, which was adopted by a new organization, the Comité International Permanent des Études Mycéniennes (CIPEM), affiliated in 1970 by the fifth colloquium with UNESCO. Colloquia continue: the 13th occurred in 2010 in Paris.
The grid developed during decipherment by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick of phonetic values for syllabic signs is shown below. (Note that "q" represents labilized velar stops [ɡʷ, kʷ, kʷʰ], not a uvular stop as in IPA)
Initial consonants are in the leftmost column; vowels are in the top row beneath the title. The transcription of the syllable (it may not have been pronounced that way) is listed next to the sign along with Bennett's identifying number for the sign preceded by an asterisk (as was Ventris' and Chadwick's convention).[note 1] In cases where the transcription of the sign remains in doubt, Bennett's number serves to identify the sign. The signs on the tablets and sealings often show considerable variation from each other and from the representations below. Discovery of the reasons for the variation and possible semantic differences is a topic of ongoing debate in Mycenaean studies.
|Recognised signs of shape V, CV[note 2]|
Special and unknown signs
In addition to the grid, the first edition of Documents in Mycenaean Greek contained a number of other signs termed "homophones" because they appeared at that time to resemble the sounds of other syllables and were transcribed accordingly: pa2 and pa3 were presumed homophonous to pa. Many of these were identified by the second edition and are shown in the "special values" below. The second edition relates: "It may be taken as axiomatic that there are no true homophones." The unconfirmed identifications of *34 and *35 as ai2 and ai3 were removed. pa2 became qa.
|Transcription||a2 (ha)||a3 (ai)||au||dwe||dwo||nwa||pte||pu2 (phu)||ra2 (rya)||ra3 (rai)||ro2 (ryo)||ta2 (tya)||twe||two|
Other values remain unknown, mainly because of scarcity of evidence concerning them.[note 3] Note that *34 and *35 are mirror images of each other but whether this graphic relationship indicates a phonetic one remains unconfirmed.
|Untranscribed and doubtful values|
In recent times, CIPEM inherited the former authority of Bennett and the Wingspread Convention in deciding what signs are "confirmed" and how to officially represent the various sign categories. In editions of Mycenaean texts, the signs whose values have not been confirmed by CIPEM are always transcribed as numbers preceded by an asterisk (e.g., *64). CIPEM also allocates the numerical identifiers, and until such allocation, new signs (or obscured or mutilated signs) are transcribed as a bullet-point enclosed in square brackets: [•].
Spelling and pronunciation
The signs are approximations―each may be used to represent a variety of about 70 distinct combinations of sounds, within rules and conventions. The grid presents a system of monosyllabic signs of the type V/CV. Clarification of the 14 or so special values tested the limits of the grid model, but Chadwick in the end concluded that even with the ramifications, the syllabic signs can unexceptionally be considered monosyllabic.
Possible exceptions, Chadwick goes on to explain, include the two diphthongs, 𐁁 (ai) and 𐁂 (au), as in 𐁁𐀓𐀠𐀴𐀍, ai-ku-pi-ti-jo, for Aiguptios (Αἰγύπτιος, "Egyptian") and 𐁂𐀐𐀷, au-ke-wa, for Augewās (Αὐγείας "Augeas").[note 4] However, a diphthong is by definition two vowels united into a single sound and therefore might be typed as just V. Thus 𐁉 (rai), as in 𐀁𐁉𐀺, e-rai-wo, for elaiwon (ἔλαιον),[note 5] is of the type CV. Diphthongs are otherwise treated as two monosyllables: 𐀀𐀫𐀄𐀨, a-ro-u-ra, for arourans (accusative plural of ἄρουραι, "tamarisk trees"), of the types CV and V. Lengths of vowels and accents are not marked.
𐁌 (Twe), 𐁍 (two), 𐁃 (dwe), 𐁄 (dwo), 𐁅 (nwa) and the more doubtful 𐁘 (swi) and 𐁚 (swa) may be regarded as beginning with labialized consonants, rather than two consonants, even though they may alternate with a two-sign form: o-da-twe-ta and o-da-tu-we-ta for Odatwenta; a-si-wi-jo and a-swi-jo for Aswios (Ἄσιος). Similarly, 𐁈 (rya), 𐁊 (ryo) and 𐁋 (tya) begin with palatalized consonants rather than two consonants: -ti-ri-ja for -trja (-τρια).
The one sign Chadwick tags as the exception to the monosyllabic rule is 𐁇 (pte), but this he attributes to a development pte<*pje as in kleptei<*klep-jei.
Linear B does not consistently distinguish between voiced and unvoiced stop consonants (except in the dental series) and between aspirated and unaspirated stops even when these distinctions are phonemic in Mycenaean Greek. For example, pa-te is patēr (πατήρ), pa-si is phāsi (φησί);[note 6] p on the other hand some times does not represent (like in the beginning of the following word) β: βασιλεύς ("basileus", meaning in this period "court official or local chieftain") is qa-si-re-u[note 7]); ko-ru is korus (κόρυς, "helmet"), ka-ra-we is grāwes (plural of γρηύς), ko-no is skhoinos ("rope"). Exceptionally, however, the dentals are represented by a t-series and a d-series for unvoiced and voiced: to-so for tosos (τόσος or τόσσος) but do-ra for dōra (plural of δῶρον, "gift"). Aspiration, however, is not marked: to-ra-ke for thōrākes (plural of θώραξ, "breastplate"). In other cases aspiration can be marked but is optional: pu-te for phutēr ("planter", from φυτεύω), but phu-te-re for phutēres ("planters"). Initial aspiration may be marked only in the case of initial a and rarely: ha-te-ro for hateron (masculine ἅτερος), and yet a-ni-ja for hāniai (ἁνίαι).
The j-series represents the semivowel equivalent to English "y", and is used word-initially and as an intervocalic glide after a syllable ending in i: -a-jo for -αῖος (-aios); a-te-mi-ti-jo for Ἀρτεμίτιος (Artemitios). The w-series similarly are semivowels used word-initially and intervocalically after a syllable ending in u: ku-wa-no for kuanos (κύανος, "blue").
The r-series includes both the /r/ and /l/ phonemes: ti-ri-po for tripos (τρίπος, i.e. τρίπους) and tu-ri-so for Tulisos (Τυλισός).
The q-series is used for monosyllables beginning with a class of consonants that disappeared from classical Greek by regular phonetic change: the labialized velar consonants (see under Mycenaean Greek). These had entered the language from various sources: inheritance from Proto-Indo-European, assimilation, borrowing of foreign words, especially names. In Mycenaean they are /kʷ/, /gʷ/, and rarely /kʷh/ in names and a few words: a-pi-qo-ro for amphiquoloi (ἀμφίπολοι); qo-u-ko-ro for guoukoloi (βουκόλοι. "cowherders"); -qo-i-ta for -φόντης.
Some consonants in some contexts are not written (but are understood to be present), such as word-initial s- and -w before a consonant, as in pe-ma for sperma (σπέρμα, "seed"). The pe-, which was primarily used as its value pe of grid class CV, is here being used for sper-. This was not an innovative or exceptional use, but followed the stated rules. Syllable-final -l, -m, -n, -r and -s are also not written out, and only word-final velars are notated by plene writing: a-to-ro-qo for anthrōquos (ἄνθρωπος, "human being, person"). Here a, being primarily of grid class V, is being used as an- and could be used for al, am, ar, and so on.
In the case of clusters of two or three consonants that do not follow the initial s- and -w rule or the double consonants: ξ (ks or x), ψ (ps) and qus (which later did not exist in classical Greek), each consonant in the cluster is represented by a type CV sign that shares its consonant value: ko-no-so for Knōsos,[note 8] or ku-ru-so for khrusos (χρυσός, "gold"). The vowels of these signs have been called "empty", "null", "extra", "dead" and other terms by various writers as they represent no sound. There were rules though, that governed the selection of the "empty" vowel and therefore determined which sign was to be used. The vowel had to be the same as the one of the first syllable following the cluster or, if at the end of the word, preceding: ti-ri-po with ti- (instead of ta-, te- and so on) to match -ri-. A rare exception occurs in words formed from wa-na-ka, wanax (ϝάναξ, Homeric and Classical ἄναξ): wa-na-ka-te for wanaktei (dative), and wa-na-ka-te-ro for wanakteros, the adjectival form. This exception may not have applied to all contexts, as an example of wa-na-ka that follows standard rules has emerged in Ayios Vasileios in Laconia. The text reads wa-na-ko-to (genitive) and is written on a sealing nodule dating to the late 14th or early 13th century, slightly earlier than other Linear B texts found on mainland Greece.
Linear B also uses a large number of ideograms. They express:
- The type of object concerned (e.g. a cow, wool, a spear)
- A unit of measure.
They have no phonetic value and are never used as word signs in writing a sentence like Japanese kanji are. They are typically at the end of a line before a number and appear to signify the object the number applies to. Many of the values remain unknown or disputed. Some commodities such as cloth and containers are divided into many different categories represented by distinct ideograms. Livestock may be marked with respect to their sex.
The numerical references for the ideograms were originally devised by Ventris and Bennett, divided into functional groups corresponding to the breakdown of Bennett's index. These groups are numbered beginning 100, 110, 120 etc., with some provision of spare numbers for future additions; the official CIPEM numberings used today are based on Ventris and Bennett's numbering, with the provision that three or four letter codes (written in small capitals), based on Latin words that seemed relevant at the time, are used where the meanings are known and agreed. Unicode (as of version 5.0) encodes 123 Linear B ideograms.
The ideograms are symbols, not pictures of the objects in question—e.g. one tablet records a tripod with missing legs, but the ideogram used is of a tripod with three legs. In modern transcriptions of Linear B tablets, it is typically convenient to represent an ideogram by its Latin or English name or by an abbreviation of the Latin name. Ventris and Chadwick generally used English; Bennett, Latin. Neither the English nor the Latin can be relied upon as an accurate name of the object; in fact, the identification of some of the more obscure objects is a matter of exegesis.
|Glyph||Code point[note 9]||Bennett||CIPEM||English|
|People and Animals|
|U+10083||105 Ca S-||EQU
|"Adjunct to ox" (1973)|
|U+10086||106b C- D-||OVISf||EWE|
|U+10087||106a C- D-||OVISm||RAM|
|𐂈||U+10088||107b C- Mc||CAPf||SHE-GOAT|
|Units of Measurement|
|By Dry Measure|
|𐂎||U+1008E||120 E- F-||GRA
|𐂐||U+10090||122 F- U-||OLIV
"some kind of grain"
|𐂑||U+10091||123 G- Un||AROM
|By liquid measure|
|By weight or in units|
|Counted in units|
|𐃤||U+100E4||205 K Tn||
|𐃍||U+100CD||241 Sd Se||CUR
|𐃎||U+100CE||242 Sf Sg||CAPS
|𐃏||U+100CF||243 Sa So||ROTA
This section's factual accuracy may be compromised due to out-of-date information. (March 2014)
Inscriptions in Linear B have been found on tablets and vases or other objects; they are catalogued and classified by, inter alia, the location of the excavation they were found in.
|Prefix||Location||Number of items and/or notes|
|Two tablet fragments.|
|IK||Iklaina||Fragment of a tablet.|
|KN||Knossos||ca. 4,360 tablets (not counting finds of Linear A)|
|TH||Thebes||99 tablets + 238 published in 2002 (L. Godart and A. Sacconi, 2002);|
|Two tablets found in 1950s excavations resurfaced in the early 2010s; a sketch depicts a third tablet.|
Another 170 inscriptions in Linear B have been found on various vessels, for a total of some 6,058 known inscriptions.
The oldest Linear B tablets are probably those from the Room of Chariot Tablets at Knossos, and date to the latter half of the 15th century BC. The Kafkania pebble, though from an earlier context, is not genuine. The earliest inscription from the mainland is an inscribed clay tablet found at Iklaina dating to between 1400 and 1350 BC.
Timeline of Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean scripts
The Aegean is responsible for many of the early Greek language words that have to do with daily life such as words for tools and items that are seen every day. The sequence and the geographical spread of Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B, the three overlapping, but distinct, writing systems on Bronze Age Crete, the Aegean islands, and mainland Greece are summarized as follows:
|Writing system||Geographical area||Time span[note 10]|
|Cretan hieroglyphs||Crete||c. 1625−1500 BC|
|Linear A||Crete, Aegean Islands (Kea, Kythira, Milos, Santorini), and Laconia||c. 1800−1450 BC|
|Linear B||Crete (Knossos), and mainland (Pylos, Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns)||c. 1425−1200 BC|
Timeline of Linear B
|Relative date||Period dates||Location||Locale or tablet|
|LM II||1425–1390 BC||Knossos||Room of the Chariot Tablets|
|LH IIIA1/early LH IIIA2||1400–1370 BC||Iklaina|
|LM IIIB||1340–1190 BC||Chania||tablets Sq 1, 6659, KH 3 (possibly Linear B)|
|LH/LM IIIB1 end[note 11]||Chania
|tablets Ar 3, Gq 5, X 6|
tablets from Oil Merchant group of houses
Ug tablets and Wu sealings
|LH IIIB2, end||Mycenae
|tablets from the Citadel|
Of tablets and new Pelopidou Street deposit
all but five tablets
Controversy on the date of the Knossos tablets
The Knossos archive was dated by Arthur Evans to the destruction by conflagration of about 1400 BC, which would have baked and preserved the clay tablets. He dated this event to the LM II period. This view stood until Carl Blegen excavated the site of ancient Pylos in 1939 and uncovered tablets inscribed in Linear B. They were fired in the conflagration that destroyed Pylos about 1200 BC, at the end of LHIIIB. With the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris in 1952, serious questions about Evans' date began to be considered. Most notably, Blegen said that the inscribed stirrup jars, which are oil flasks with stirrup-shaped handles, imported from Crete around 1200 were of the same type as those dated by Evans to the destruction of 1400. Blegen found a number of similarities between 1200 BC Pylos and 1400 BC Knossos and suggested the Knossian evidence be reexamined, as he was sure of the 1200 Pylian date.
The examination uncovered a number of difficulties. The Knossos tablets had been found at various locations in the palace. Evans had not kept exact records. Recourse was had to the day books of Evans' assistant, Duncan Mackenzie, who had conducted the day-to-day excavations. There were discrepancies between the notes in the day books and Evans' excavation reports. Moreover, the two men had disagreed over the location and strata of the tablets. The results of the reinvestigation were eventually published by Palmer and Boardman, On the Knossos Tablets. It contains two works, Leonard Robert Palmer's The Find-Places of the Knossos Tablets and John Boardman's The Date of the Knossos Tablets, representing Blegen's and Evans' views respectively. Consequently, the dispute was known for a time as "the Palmer-Boardman dispute". There has been no generally accepted resolution to it yet.
The major cities and palaces used Linear B for records of disbursements of goods. Wool, sheep, and grain were some common items, often given to groups of religious people and to groups of "men watching the coastline".
The tablets were kept in groups in baskets on shelves, judging by impressions left in the clay from the weaving of the baskets. When the buildings they were housed in were destroyed by fires, many of the tablets were fired.
Discovery and decipherment
Arthur J. Evans' classification of scripts
The British archaeologist Arthur Evans, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, was presented by Greville Chester in 1886 with a sealstone from Crete engraved with a writing he took to be Mycenaean. Heinrich Schliemann had encountered signs similar to these, but had never identified the signs clearly as writing, relating in his major work on Mycenae that "of combinations of signs resembling inscriptions I have hitherto only found three or four ...." In 1893 Evans purchased more sealstones in Athens, verifying from the antiquarian dealers that the stones came from Crete. During the next year he noticed the script on other artefacts in the Ashmolean. In 1894 he embarked for Crete in search of the script. Soon after arrival, at Knossos he saw the sign of the double axe on an excavated wall, considering this the source of the script. Subsequently, he found more stones being worn by Cretan women as amulets called γαλόπετρες "milk-stones", coming from the various ruins.
Starting in 1894, Evans published his theories that the signs evidenced various phases in the development of a writing system in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, the first article being "Primitive Pictographs and a Prae-Phoenician Script from Crete". In these articles Evans distinguished between "pictographic writing" and "a linear system of writing". He did not explicitly define these terms, causing some confusion among subsequent writers concerning what he meant, but in 1898 he wrote